Friday, August 7, 2015

A Game-Changing Fire in 1927 Montreal and My grandfather


Some motion picture houses in turn of last century Montreal.

I've written a great deal about the era in Montreal on this blog,  but in the 1910 era the very proper Nicholson Women of Threshold Girl, my ebook,  attended the traditional theatre.

The Nickel was too lowbrow, although somewhat exciting. It wasn't until 1917 and WWI that they regularly went to 'movies' and actually referred to them as such in letters.

In Milk and Water, about Montreal in 1927, motion pictures figure more strongly.

In 1927, there was a fire in a Ste Catherine E  cinema (the Laurier Palace) where 70 children died. My grandfather, Jules Crepeau, as Director of Services was somewhat implicated.

Because of that fatal fire, Montreal became the only jurisdiction in North America to ban children in cinemas, until 1967, with a slight relaxing of the rules after 1962.

It was one of the few times the French and the English, the Protestants and the Catholics could agree on something.

In Europe and North America, children had been going to motion pictures, attended and unattended by 'adults', since the beginning of the era.  Many parents felt these places safer than the streets, with all the messy traffic, although the moral reformers did not.

From what I have read, in the Prohibition Era, children under 20 made up the largest proportion of movie patrons. And although there was a law against under 17's watching unattended, plenty did. Mostly boys as is it happens, and it is mostly boys who died in the Laurier Palace Fire in January 1927.


In 1964, I vividly recall watching the MUSIC MAN in a church basement, ST. Malachy's church on Clanranald. It was a  special family viewing and I sat cross-legged on a cold concrete floor.

There were killer fires in theatres in the US too (These places were firetraps in general) but no such laws were enacted.

This must have truly hurt the revenues of the theatre owners in Quebec. Jewish owners.

My grandfather's brother,Isadore Crepeau, was the VP of United Theatre Amusements. In the 1927 era, that company was building the huge expensive motion picture palaces in the West End such as the Empress on Sherbrooke West.

That company often fought in court with the Provincial Government over the Lord's Day Act, even before 1927. Monsieur Ouimet of Ouimetoscope fame did, too.

Conventional theatres that showed plays with live actors had to close on Sunday, movie houses were exempt.

My grandfather was accused by a certain Temperance Type, W E Raney, testifying about Montreal corruption in 1926 at the US Senate Hearings into Prohibition, of pulling the strings of the police Chief, and of allowing theatres to stay open illegally, even ones that let in children unattended.

This was only a few months before the fire but the accusation was never brought up at the Laurier Palace Fire inquiry.

Cops, apparently, were given free tickets for their children to convince them to turn a blind eye to transgressions. I read that one Constable lost three children in the Laurier Palace Theatre fire and that underscores the point.

Who went to movie houses? The kids of the working class. The inquiry into the fire acknowledged this. It's the only entertainment they could afford. The Catholic Church joined with the Presbyterian types to get this unique law passed, jumping on this tragic event opportunistically. Both churches had lost a lot of their "customers" to the motion picture show since 1908 or so. Monsieur Ouimet said Sunday was his best day.

(Ironically, the Catholic Church was a big investor in the new Nickelodeons in Montreal.)


I heard a Brit reminisce about early movie houses on BBC Radio Four. It seems, that in many cases, kids were the only ones who could read so their parents and grandparents, often immigrants, wanted the kids there with them.

As is well know, 1927 saw the first Talkie, the Jazz Singer.

Today, Quebec has very lax laws. I don't know if kids go alone..well, they do but in groups at the Cineplex.



Irony. My mother in law, born 1917, tells me that she and her sisters and friends got into movies underage by dressing up like grown women, makeup and all. And by behaving properly, too. I don't think that's what the Moral Reformers had in mind....(Law of Unintended Consequences.)I found a picture of her dated 1929, and she did look very grown up. I was startled. They had no 'teenagers' in those days.